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The importance of emotional wellness in criminal justice

Officers must keep their minds sharp and be able to analyze situations quickly and effectively so that they—and their colleagues—return home safely


By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

When I pursued my undergraduate degree back in the 1980s, mental health and wellness were never discussed in the law enforcement community. So when I entered the corrections profession as a 21-year-old fresh out of college, I was largely ill-equipped to deal with the many pressing psychological and ethical issues that I encountered. Like many who work in law enforcement or corrections, I learned on-the-job survival instincts and developed coping skills (some healthy – some not so much). I quickly accepted that evil exists and, as criminal justice professionals, we must be equipped to face it every day we report to work.

Now as a criminal justice professor, I make sure that my students know that today’s offenders are masters of manipulation and deception. Officers must keep their minds sharp and be able to analyze situations quickly and effectively so that they—and their colleagues—return home safely.

Like many who work in law enforcement or corrections, I learned on-the-job survival instincts and developed coping skills (some healthy – some not so much). (Photo/InPublicSafety)
Like many who work in law enforcement or corrections, I learned on-the-job survival instincts and developed coping skills (some healthy – some not so much). (Photo/InPublicSafety)

At a recent conference in Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to contribute to the growing conversation about mental health among criminal justice professionals. The theme of this year’s Pennsylvania Association of Probation, Parole and Corrections (PAPPC) / Middle Atlantic States Correctional Association (MASCA) conference was Correctional Employee Wellness – Mind, Body, and Spirit. In addition to presenting a workshop focusing on the importance of physical and emotional wellness, I also served as the closing plenary speaker.

In my workshop, I shared with the participants that whenever I publish an article or a book chapter, I focus on issues that I have experienced firsthand. Most of my research is intended to illuminate the weaknesses or deficiencies in our profession that need to be addressed, one of which, was an article titled, Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion.

Talking About Suicide

When I left corrections to pursue a career in higher education, I started thinking about those had taken their own lives or had gradually self-destructed through alcoholism and other negative coping methods. I realized at that point that mental wellness was a major issue that desperately needed attention.

Those who work in law enforcement or corrections know that we have lost way too many friends to suicide (our suicide rate is twice that of the general population) and I am confident that we know countless others who have lost their way by finding comfort in a bottle of vodka or relief from physical and emotional pain through prescription drug abuse.

Where’s the Research?

When I started looking into mental wellness among criminal justice professionals, I was shocked to learn that although there are dozens upon dozens of research studies focusing on stress, burnout, and suicide among law enforcement professionals, there is virtually nothing pertaining to corrections employees.

That simply validated the fact that our profession has been overlooked by researchers and practitioners, yet the suicide rate among correctional officers is speculated to be higher than the suicide rate of police officers. The few studies that do exist have focused mostly on correctional officers, but not on other employees like administrators or program staff.

So, the big question is, where do we go from here?

Emotional Intelligence

We need to foster a discussion around mental wellness and support all employees of probation, parole, and corrections. Emotional intelligence, which is the ability to understand emotions in ourselves and in others, can help us do that.

Emotional intelligence helps us to better manage our reaction and response to stressful situations, but it also helps us to recognize and understand the emotional plight of others. It’s important that we each “learn” to see the world and its problems differently so that we don’t become cynical and jaded, which is the stereotypical personality of most correctional employees.

A healthy mindset is equally as important as your physical health and, to me, likely more important. Negativity breeds negativity, so we must do our very best to maintain a positive outlook despite the difficult interactions we face on a daily basis. Emotional intelligence can help us maintain a clear view of the world by allowing us to calmly evaluate and respond to different situations.

Don’t Bring Your Stress Home

I tell my students to go to work, be the best employee imaginable, give 150 percent, and then go home and rest easy knowing that you gave it your all. We cannot change the offenders we work with unless they are willing to embrace change and take the necessary action steps toward reform. We are change agents, but we can only provide the tools, resources, and knowledge for those individuals. Only they can choose whether to use them.

There are limitations to what you can expect yourself to do and it’s important to keep the different areas of your life in perspective. Stress from the job is real and it is a deceptive, manipulative killer who will steal your happiness, rob you of your physical health, and trick you into believing that you are all alone and helpless.

In order to combat stress, you must fight back, and if you fight back, you will win. Remember that you must have interests and friends outside of work and you must build in time for yourself to decompress and relax, whether it be through physical exerciseyoga, meditation, reading a book, fishing, hiking, and so on. The list goes on and on. Whatever gives you the most pleasure and is the most relaxing is the key to combatting stress.

About the AuthorDr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Security and Global Studies (SSGC) with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings.

Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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